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Georgia court rules clause in rental agreement doesn't bar tenant's slip-and-fall lawsuit against landlord

State Court

By Charmaine Little | Oct 28, 2019

Georgia Supreme Court Justice Charles Bethel

ATLANTA (Legal Newsline) – The Supreme Court of Georgia determined a provision in a tenant/landlord lease doesn’t apply to a resident’s premises liability lawsuit after she suffered an injury on the property.

Pamela Langley petitioned for the Supreme Court to hear the case after the Court of Appeals affirmed a trial court’s ruling that granted MP Spring Lake summary judgment. The Supreme Court reversed the rulings on Oct. 21 as it determined that the limitations on actions clause in Langley’s lease doesn’t apply to her premises liability claim against MP Spring Lake.

“Considered in a vacuum, the text of the limitation provision may appear unambiguous,” Justice Charles Bethel wrote. “However, our analysis is neither confined to this sole provision nor to the literal meaning of the phrase ‘legal action.’”

Langley sued two years after she fell in a common area of the apartment complex. Spring Lake said Langley’s lawsuit was untimely, noting that the lease agreement had a one-year statute of limitation period for legal actions. 

The provision in question says: “Resident also agrees and understands that any legal action against management or owner must be instituted within one year of the date any claim or cause of action arises and that any action filed after one year from such date shall be time barred as a matter of law."

While the provision includes the phrase “any legal action,” the question of whether it should be taken literally or if the parties actually meant to put a ceiling on the clause was raised.

The landlords’ responsibilities under OCGA section 44-7-13 is considered in contract, not tort, which is the foundation of Langley’s lawsuit. While she lived at Spring Lake’s property when she was injured, her lawsuit isn’t based on her relationship with Spring Lake, Bethel wrote. Rather, it is a premises liability lawsuit based on Spring Lake’s position as a property owner and her position as an invitee, not the landlord/tenant agreement.

“Nothing in the lease agreement suggests that it creates any relationship other than that of landlord and tenant, or that it covers subject matter beyond that relationship or the parties’ rights and obligations specified in the lease agreement," Bethel wrote. 

"This omission suggests that nothing in the lease should be read to apply to, or to curtail, tort claims” or in any other confront the legal entitlements that go beyond the lease agreement between landlords and tenants."

Presiding Justice David E. Nahmias and justices Robert Benham, Keith R. Blackwell, Michael P. Boggs, Sarah H. Warren and John J. Ellington concurred.

Chief Justice Harold D. Melton concurred in the judgment only. Justice Nels S.D. Peterson was disqualified.

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